“Why CAN’T it just be about the skating?” replies Tonya Harding to a judge when they respond to her accusations of deliberately low marking with “Tonya, it’s never been entirely about the skating… you just refuse to play along”.
It’s hardly her fault that she was born poor though, with an abusive parent who creates in Tonya an acceptance of such relationships as the norm.
The story of Tonya Harding, wrong-side-of-the-tracks ice skating champion, and the attack on her Olympic rival Nancy Kerrigan, was an unavoidable news story a quarter of a century ago, taking place after Tonya made history as the first US woman to land a triple axel in competition.
“I was loved” says Tonya, smoking in her kitchen, reminiscing about her success. “My name was a verb”, says ex-husband Jeff, about the scandal that later enveloped them.
I, Tonya is hilarious, shocking and poignant, careering through your scepticism at 100 miles an hour; it deserves a 5.8 for both technical merit and artistic expression. Despite claiming to put across different points of view it’s unashamedly pro-Tonya, repeatedly highlighting the barriers she faces: “Nancy gets hit one time and the whole world shits. For me it’s an all the time occurrence!”
“Based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly”, there are documentary-style inserts throughout the film as key players wallow in reminiscence and self-justification: her fur-clad Deirdre Barlow-lookalike mum; ex-husband Jeff sitting against a window; Tonya chain-smoking in her kitchen.
It works surprisingly well, as Tonya’s brutally unvarnished life unfolds, from the drudgery of long hours waitressing, to the diamanté and shiny satin of the skating competitions, with abuse the seam running through everything.
We’re in Oregon 40 years ago, and Tonya’s mum LaVona (a coldly caustic Allison Janney) takes her tiny daughter, in skates and furry coat, to the local ice rink. The skating teacher tries to brush her off but LaVona isn’t budging. So little Tonya begins her years of gruelling training, while her mum watches from the sidelines, pausing from her chain-smoking only to swear at her daughter for not working hard enough.
In the mind of the physically and emotionally abusive LaVona, she’s driving her daughter to greatness: “the thing about Tonya is, she skated better when she was enraged”.
Tonya wins her first competition at 4 but her mum continues to be a hard taskmaster as the years go by: “Stop talking to her, that girl is your enemy” she reprimands her daughter, chatting to a fellow skater, further isolating a girl who barely fits in as it is.
So when the teenage Tonya (Margot Robbie) meets Jeff (her talent is her superpower, he tells her), she blossoms at someone recognising her abilities and not berating her. For now, anyway.
We’re well into the 80s and it’s a reminder that the decade did women no favours style-wise. At 15 and on her first date with Jeff (Sebastian Stan) she looks like a cut-price Princess Di, though being as meddlesome as the royals, her mum comes along too.
Despite the bravura ice performances Tonya is riven with insecurities, and when Jeff tells her she’s pretty she nearly cries. But he soon starts hitting her, rationalised by Tonya with “my mom hits me, she loves me”.
Dark humour is dark for a reason, and the blackly comic moments coexist with the abuse Tonya endures. Tonya’s responses to it (marrying her abusive boyfriend, leaving him, returning to him to escape her abusive mother) are perfectly understandable. She isn’t always nice but it’s common for abuse victims to be marked as problematic; one of the reasons they’re disbelieved is because victims must be “perfect”, with “perfect” a constantly moving goal.
It’s a truism that people escape through their talent, but for Tonya skating brings more barriers along with the acclaim. When she challenges them she’s believably raw and angry, but stops before it turns into one of those unlikely movie speeches.
In a sport looking for ways to exclude poor young women, she’s marked down for the costumes she has to sew herself, when she’s tried to make them pretty. (And ironically outside of snobbish pursuits, many of us looked like Tonya in the 80s. My favourite outfit was a white mini and pink slogan top with a giant white button on it, with frosted pink lipstick and electric blue mascara. Not forgetting the lace tied round my head. And the black lace fingerless gloves, with black lacy tights and black lacy ankle socks worn over the lacy tights. And this was after taking Coco Chanel’s advice to remove an accessory before leaving the house. But then no one was trying to exclude me from anything, apart from the odd Benneton-clad rich girl sniggering at my white stilettos.)
That triple axel takes place in 1991. Flowers litter the ice. “All those people who said I couldn’t make it, well fuck you I did” says Tonya afterwards. But later lack of medal success means no endorsements and straight back to waitressing.
When Kerrigan is attacked to prevent her being picked for the US Olympic team, Tonya denies all knowledge, but it’s her undoing. “I don’t know any Derricks” says Tonya, about one of the accomplices. “I know lots of Derricks,” says Jeff.
Robbie is extraordinarily good. She perfectly captures Tonya’s acceptance of the incredible highs and terrible lows of her life without ever mocking her. Her face, a picture of utter joy when she knows she’s performed an amazing routine, is genuine; Tonya’s delight in maximising her own abilities is never, despite the uphill struggles she faces, snide. Her devastation when the judges continue to mark her down, until she does something so extraordinary even they can’t ignore her, is gut-wrenching.
Janney is brilliantly brittle as LaVona, pushing her daughter while not seeming to like her (there’s an astonishing scene near the end when she turns up ostensibly to mend fences with Tonya which turns out to be quite the opposite). Janney doesn’t try to portray her as sympathetic in any way, which is refreshing; though I can’t quite fathom out why she pushes Tonya so much with her skating, unless it’s to bask in her daughter’s reflected glory.
“I was loved for a minute then I was hated then I was just a punchline” Tonya says, looking back. But her triumphs, amid her grinding battles, are staggering: “in the sport where the judges want you to be this old time version of what a woman supposed to be, to be the first US woman to land the triple axel. So fuck ’em.”